After this week's stunning terrorist attack, Americans are right to express solidarity with the people of India, who have suffered from a plague of political violence that has lasted for decades. With a population of over a billion, India is like a world unto itself, in which all kinds of tensions and resentments have boiled over into low-grade civil wars. Across large swathes of eastern India, Naxalite rebels have fought the central government to a standstill. Separatist guerrillas in the Northeast have helped keep that region in grinding poverty. Communal violence remains an ever-present threat, not least because it often suits the purposes of organized criminals to stir up hatred against Hindus or Muslims. But the most damaging conflict is and has always been the fight for Kashmir, the source of India's bloody rivalry with Pakistan. Unfortunately for us, this rivalry means that the United States can't do what comes naturally to us, namely support a friendly democracy in its efforts to crush terrorism.
When Al-Qaida struck New York, even America's bitterest foes had reason to fear Al-Qaida's brand of nihilistic violence. As a result, the world rallied behind the American effort to rid Afghanistan of Al-Qaida and its Taliban allies. But can you imagine the United States rallying behind India if it tried to do much the same thing? The source of the Islamist zealotry behind the siege of Mumbai can be easily traced--it comes from just over the border in Pakistan, where a myriad of militant groups operate states-within-states. It seems that the attack on Mumbai was at the very least aided and abetted by a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or Army of the Righteous, which is dedicated to overthrowing Indian rule in Kashmir and establishing an Islamist regime in its place. Though banned by General Pervez Musharraf's military regime in 2002, there is no denying that LeT once enjoyed extensive support from Pakistan's notorious Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, which saw the group as a useful pawn in its efforts to undermine India, just as it saw the Taliban as an effective means of securing Afghanistan. Despite the ban, LeT continues to operate in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
Whether or not the Pakistani government is responsible for the attack on Mumbai, the American precedent suggests that India has a right to go into Pakistan-controlled territory to root out the terrorist threat. It is hardly surprising that India is planning a show of force. But by doing so, India will force Pakistan to mass troops along its border as well, many of whom will be drawn from their efforts to target Islamist militants in coordination with our own efforts in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's new government is all but begging India to tread lightly. The sad irony of the attack on Mumbai is that it comes just as the very vulnerable Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has sought to build bridges to India. Indeed, one theory is that the attack was meant to undermine this thaw in relations between the two countries, the better to strengthen the hand of hawkish elements in Pakistan.
The United States thus finds itself in a familiar spot: between a rock and a hard place. For months now, Barack Obama's foreign policy team has been promoting the idea that the road to a secure Afghanistan runs through Kashmir. Taking a long view of the conflict, Obama seems to have concluded that resolving the dispute over Kashmir will allow Pakistan to focus on defeating Islamist militants in Afghanistan and within its own borders. This is an interesting notion, but American mediation will in all likelihood make matters much worse.
Right now, India and Pakistan are involved in the first serious bilateral talks on Kashmir's future in decades. An American role will raise nationalist sensitivities in India, and it will strengthen the hand of Pakistani military elements who are reluctant to make any concessions on Kashmir. After all, why make concessions for free if the United States will offer you some generous financial incentive to do much the same thing? The smartest thing President Obama could do on Kashmir is probably nothing. We have to hope that India and Pakistan can work out their differences on Kashmir on their own. Our most pressing concern is to see to it that today's tensions don't become a wider war.